Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Grammar moment: Apostrophes

One of the most frequently misunderstood punctuation marks is the apostrophe. Some people seem to regard it as a decorative embellishment, while others just throw apostrophes into their text at random and hope they get it right.

Let's start with the basics. There are two primary uses for the apostrophe: contractions and possessives.

The rule for contractions is simple: When letters are left out of words, often when words are combined, the apostrophe is put in to show where the letters got left out.

do not --> don't
I have --> I've
he would --> he'd

Possessives are more complicated. Depending what grammar book you're looking at, you could see as many as six pages of complicated rules. And no two grammar books have exactly the same rules. If you are taking a writing course, you will want to find out what rule book your instructor uses, and then use that same rule book. But if you're not working to please a particular instructor, or if you're in MY class, I like to keep it as simple as possible.

First off, figure out whether one thing "belongs to" something else. Then ask yourself, "Who or what does this thing belong to?" The answer to that question is the word that you need to make into a possessive. Now, if that word doesn't end in s, you add an apostrophe and an s. If it does end in s, you just add the apostrophe.

Who does the restroom belong to?
women doesn't end with s, so you add apostrophe plus s --> women's restroom

Who does the book belong to?
Ms. Jones
Ms. Jones ends with s, so you just add apostrophe --> Ms. Jones' book

Now, many grammar books will have all sorts of other rules, such as when the owner is a person, even when the name ends in s, or if it's a plural of a certain type, or if the word has a certain pattern of spelling or pronunciation . . . well, it's all very complicated, and I don't believe any normal human being can remember all of the little details. So unless you're taking a class in which the instructor specifically tells you to use other rules, just keep it simple. If it ends in s, add an apostrophe, and if it doesn't end in s, add an apostrophe and an s.

There are also situations in which you should NOT use an apostrophe. For example, while possessive nouns need apostrophes, possessive pronouns never have apostrophes. That's because otherwise, your meaning becomes unclear. Thus, its is a possessive meaning "belonging to it," while it's is a contraction meaning "it is" or "it has."

The Chihuahua lost its temper; it's been antsy lately.

Apostrophes are also NOT used for plurals under most circumstances. The plural of horse is horses, not horse's. The most frequent exceptions to this rule are if you're making a plural of a single letter or digit, or using a word not as its own meaning but as a word.

We hope WCMIK gets all A's on his next report card.
This guarantee is good, no if's, and's, or but's.

Lest you believe apostrophes are so trivial that you don't need to pay attention to them, let me assure you, they're not. If you're sloppy with apostrophes, people will assume you're sloppy with other details. And sometimes that assumption is accurate. An electrician moved into our neighborhood in Albuquerque, and as a good-neighbor thing, he put flyers on everybody's front doors, announcing that he'd give all of his new neighbors a 20% discount on all services to all of his new neighbors. Everywhere there should have been an apostrophe, there wasn't one, and everywhere there was an apostrophe, there shouldn't have been.

We'd been having trouble with the doorbell, and I'd tried to solve the problem but hadn't been successful. Using masking tape, I'd carefully labeled all the wires and terminals so that I would be able to reassemble the system. When we got this guy's flyer, Pat wanted to call this guy in to fix the doorbell. I pointed to all of the apostrophe errors in his flyer and told Pat that if this guy couldn't pay attention to details about apostrophes, I wouldn't trust him to pay attention to details in his electrician work. Pat called him anyway.

Not only was this guy unable to fix the doorbell; he also removed all of my careful labels, so there was no way I could even reconnect the wires to where they had originally been connected.

Even before this incident, I have always mistrusted people who don't use apostrophes appropriately. Since then, I have NEVER responded to an ad, or hired anybody, when apostrophes are consistently misused. The occasional error that is probably just a lapse, I don't have a problem with. But anyone who persistently and consistently misuses apostrophes isn't going to get MY business.


Anonymous jesse said...

See, now this is why this site is valuable:

"...if you're making a plural of a single letter or digit, or using a word not as its own meaning but as a word.

We hope WCMIK gets all A's on his next report card.
This guarantee is good, no if's, and's, or but's."

I always wondered what to do in that situation. What about "1950s?" is it 1950's?

Thu Aug 18, 07:19:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Jess, you don't use an apostrophe when you make the plural of a number, unless that number is a single digit. So when you name a decade, it will just be 1950s without the apostrophe.

However, if you leave off the first two digits of the year, that makes a contraction, so you do use an apostrophe, but at the beginning where the digits were left out: '50s.

Thu Aug 18, 11:12:00 PM MDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might enjoy this:
Bob's Apostrophe Poster


Thu Sep 15, 10:55:00 PM MDT  

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